Doing your job doesn’t win popularity contests

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Take a ride down any busy street, and just for giggles, pick any town you want. Amazing, isn’t it, the common practice of stores and restaurants you pass?

Jewelry stores have big signs that say, “40% OFF EVERYTHING.” Electronics dealers situate glowing lights and big-screen TVs along alarm-guarded windows. Clothing stores promote well-structured mannequins with the finest attire in stock. And restaurants throw chalkboards on the sidewalk with the words “Cubed steak and two veggies — $4.95” written in elegant cursive.

What’s the point?

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We’ve had enough real-life marketing lessons to know a 40-percent jewelry sale means the product is marked up by just 160 percent. We’ve learned flashing lights attract a customer’s eye. And if a mannequin can look that good in a red dress, imagine what it would do for us. (And by using the pronoun “us,” please know I haven’t worn a red dress since I was an infant. I’ve found black suits my skin tone better.)

Do any of those practices surprise you (besides me and a dress)? They shouldn’t. Stores use all kinds of product-placement approaches to sell merchandise. If they didn’t, they’d go out of business.

So far, we’re not dealing with anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I would assume most agree a business is only as good as the products it sells.

If that’s the case, you have to understand my bewilderment over the past couple of weeks. On more than one occasion, and from more than just one person, I’ve been accused of running a business that is “just trying to sell newspapers.”

A lot of this isn’t second-hand rumor, either. One leader in the community, whom I’ve respected since the day I moved to town, told me the exact same thing.

On the surface, it almost sounds like an idiotic statement, doesn’t it? Someone accusing the publisher of a newspaper of trying to sell newspapers is a lot like accusing the owner of a fish market of trying to sell fish.

Obviously, there’s a deeper issue involved in the accusation. For the past few weeks, our newspaper has reported on a couple of issues that provoked the emotions of those involved. The Arch Street project, chief among those, has engaged people who deeply care about the future of either their property or their city.

When a newspaper discusses an issue so close to people’s emotion, the first reaction is to shift blame to that newspaper. For some reason, we’re to blame for the inflammation of a discussion that affects nearly every resident of Demopolis — some more than others.

In essence, reporting on local issues has resulted in an accusation that our newspaper is “just trying to sell newspapers.”

I’ve thought through the indictment for several days now. To seek out wiser counsel, I even called the chairman of the journalism department at my alma mater to ask his opinion. Turns out I’m not as misguided as I had begun to felt.

If this were a courtroom, I believe I’d plead guilty to the charge. If we need to make a public confession, I represent this newspaper in admitting that, indeed, we are trying to sell newspapers.

As my journalism mentor put it, “A newspaper that sells creates a sense of activity in a town. It shows the city isn’t sitting on its hands, and they have something they’re proud of.”

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll stand by it today. Look at any small town and then look at the town’s newspaper. If the town is dying (or dead), the newspaper is usually negative in tone and hasn’t changed in quite a while. If a town is vibrant and growing, you’ll find a nearly identical newspaper.

Just to reassure my skepticism, I called another newspaper veteran this week who knows a lot about Demopolis, and I asked him the same thing.

“You’re not in this to win any popularity contests,” he said. “Your job is to inform the public and act as a watchdog in their interests.”

I’d just as soon let the Arch Street project work itself out. At the same time, the project has a taxpayer value of almost a half-million dollars. Beyond that, the project would take an enormous financial investment from the city of Demopolis, and that money doesn’t grow on a tree by the riverbank.

If people want to narrow the perception of our newspaper to that of one just interested in selling more papers, then so be it. But in the past 18 months, I believe we’ve built a product that once again reports on the news of this city and those around us.

Explaining and publicizing community issues isn’t an easy task. Most issues involve specific people who want to conduct business in a private manner.

We respect the rights of private citizens, and since I’ve worked here, we’ve never breached those rights with anyone. But when an issue becomes public in nature — when public money and public boards are involved — we do, and always will, report on them.

In retrospect, maybe it’s easier just to print a few meaningless press releases about a corporate marathon from Talladega to Wilsonville. For years, that’s the content we’ve had in the Demopolis newspaper.

Then again, that’s not why people buy this newspaper. And for goodness sakes, we just want to sell more newspapers.